Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Return to the Question of Musil's "Woman Artist," the "Primitive" and the "Idiot"

Adolf Wöllfli, 1920, from the Prinzhorn Collection of the art of the insane
Since writing the post a few weeks ago on Avital Ronell's response to Musil's "Über die Dummheit," I have done some deeper exegesis and am now quite clear that Musil is not, contrary to what Ronell declares, simply joining the "we" of men to attack the stupid woman or stupid woman artist. In fact, after reading his extensive notes for the address it is clear that he associated himself with the woman he presents, and with at least some aspects of the stupidity he discusses. It may seem even more damning to note that the Künstlerin (woman artist) who responds in multiple associations when she plays the association-word game (instead of one simple word) is originally an "imbecile" in Musil's notes, until we read Musil's admission:  "Der Idiot, der wie ich antwortet" (the idiot who answers like I do). In his notes, he remarks that the answers of the idiot who speaks like him have a great plasticity, a corporality..."they do not answer conceptually, but tell a story, dramatic or epic...[they] narrate superfluities, narrate contexts and supplementaries and these are connected to the theme through an underground sea". This underground sea is related to the underground, many branched street (discussed below) in Musil's sketch "What is a street". Musil's writing process is itself an extreme version of this multiplicity of answering, this proliferation of associations and underground tunnels. The dumb, he continues, "are not always poets, nor are poets always dumb; but there is a relationship about which there remains much to say". He further asks the question of what the difference might be between the poet (Dichter) and the lady (Dame), who both talk about themselves alot, who lack seemliness and measure, who are both often improper (unanständig), who are sometimes too emotional about things. What is the difference? "Gar keiner!"(none at all).  Referring back to Dostoevsky's prince Myshkin, we see him behaving extremely "improperly" in the dramatic scene where he flails his arms around in excitement and breaks the expensive vase! He simply does not know how to be seemly, or cool or calm. He is (horrors!) impassioned, inspired; he actually cares about something; he talks too much (and too much about himself), he doesn't know how to "control" himself. He is an idiot, he is feminine, or he is a poet.
The political nature of Musil's  address is much clearer in the preliminary notes, revealing again that Musil felt himself as artist directly endangered and maligned by the invectives of the totalitarian regimes in power, and compares himself thus with the woman who, he also notes more directly in his preparatory drafts, deftly uses "Bauernschlauheit" (peasant cleverness) to hide her intelligence from those in power ("a realistic observer  will see in this a weapon which encircles her").  In one instance he notes that another term for stupidity at the time of his writing was "undeutsch" (un-German), and speaks of what the Nazi party would call "übermoderne Musik" (excessively modern music) and the danger that one who speaks of or questions the valuations of stupidity exposes himself to. He could be accused of having a "destructive attitude during the contemporary historical development/of the ether swoon....yes, it is not impossible that there would be hotheads who would accuse him of a lack of a patriotic or völkish attitude". Musil finishes ironically: "Of that lack he knows himself to be exonerated. And I hope that no one would fear that this will become a polit[ical] exposition. I am only speaking about stupidity". Later in the notes he makes another cryptic comment about the regimes in power, noting that many are blinded today like Tobias once was (who in the apocryphal Book of Tobit was blinded by a bird defecating into his eyes), when an eagle fell into his eyes from the propeller area....Bird," Musil corrects himself, "and it wasn't even an eagle!" referring, of course, to the German eagle.  This is followed by a comment about the German "herd instinct" which had already existed before it found its current political form, and a slight bit later by a discussion of sadism, "because our time has developed a social sadism" related directly to "humanism's lack of resistance". The word stupid, he notes, was often used to refer to poetry in more intellectually happy and liberal times; but now it has been replaced in part by "political and national invective" and an unconscionably excessive brutality and passionate intensity.
In this context, the imbeciles, the women artists, the idiot poets who, Musil notes, speak like "painterly primitives" when responding to associative prompts, are stand-ins for Modernist artists, maligned by the Nazis as "entartet" (degenerate), but who themselves (Musil included) happily admit of some affinity with the art of the insane, of children, and, famously, of "primitive" cultures, precisely because this work provided access to the "spherical" realms of the subconscious and sub-logical.

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